In this day and age of depressing war coverage, bloated reality television and bug-eyed weathermen, local media icons are a dying and necessary breed.
Flippo the Clown (King of Clowns) hung up his big, floppy red shoes in the mid-80s after splitting the sides of Columbus children for some 30-odd years. The City Council pulled the plug on underground goth hero Damon Zex three years ago by cutting off funding for public access television (upon which Zex hilariously dubbed the council “the very sphincter of mediocrity”). But there is a man out there who still watches over the people of Columbus from atop a radio tower, perched like a hawk. Well, perched like a night owl, anyway.
Fritz the Nite Owl is best known for his work as the host of the 17-year run of Nite Owl Theater for CBS affiliate WBNS 10TV. Donned in his trademark oversized glam-rock glasses with luminescent owl horns, black Han Solo vest and a mustache that in earlier times would have intimidated Burt Reynolds, Fritz presented movies to his audience with snappy dialogue and an impressive array of special effects.
“I wanted to do something that no one had done before,” the Nite Owl said in a recent interview with OSU Late Night host Tommy Smiley. “So every night I would sit in the studio and watch the movie while the audience was watching it at home, and in-between commercial breaks I would make commentary that involved whatever scenes had just played,” he said.
“There was no script, it was all improvised. I came up with the ideas for special effects and the production crew put it together for me. I guess I was doing something right because they kept me on the air for a long time.”
And that’s putting it mildly. During his 6,000-plus episodes (with no re-runs) for the station, Fritz’s imagination ranged from swimming in an aquarium with giant goldfish to superimposing his face over that of Norman Bates (“That one really freaked out the dopeheads,” he muses) all the while presenting fresh banter to often stale movies.
The innovation earned him 20 Emmy nominations and five Emmy awards.
The trophies sit proudly on the mantle over the fireplace of the Nite Owl’s humble Columbus home, sparkling in dusty afternoon sunbeams. These trophies serve as a reminder of the brilliance and initiative put into keeping audiences on their toes for so many years. And at the ripe age of 69, Fritz has no intention of letting up. Every Sunday night he hosts Nite Owl Jazz on radio stations WJZA 103.5 and WJZK 104.3 from 9 p.m. to midnight, maintaining the enthusiasm that has kept him in radio since 1959.
I caught Fritz in a recent telephone interview. I was amazed by the baritone rumble and muted intensity of his off-air voice as he said, “If you liked the music I used on the TV show, then this show’s for you. One of the subtexts of the program is to expand your musical horizons and take the blinders off of your ears while exploring the straight-ahead, hardcore sound of 21st-century jazz.”
Although the emphasis of the show is to promote recently-produced jazz, the host provides listeners with a diverse palette of its sub-genres, from classic blues ballads to big band fusion. And because the station gives the Nite Owl carte blanche with his selection, listeners can be sure that he is sitting in the booth enjoying the music along with them, just as he did in his movie days at WBNS. “The hardest part of the job is deciding what not to play,” Fritz shares giddily. “So much jazz, so little time. And I can always use all of the friendly ears I can get.”
Time should be of little concern to Fritz the Nite Owl, considering the man has spent the majority of his life as a bastion of all that is cool, hip and soulful within his community. Without him, the airwaves of Columbus would have been a much duller place.
Lee Keeler is a senior in English and can be reached for comment at